By Humberto Guida
In early April of last year, Rick Najera was on an airplane against his doctor’s orders, traveling to Washington D.C. to speak in front of the World Bank about the diversity of American Latinos. He made it to the engagement, limped to the podium, and asked the esteemed members of the high profile audience to look around the room. To recognize the miracles they all represent. He then instructed them to look back at him. Najera told them, “And I am a miracle. To be standing here speaking to you all today. Because one week ago I was in a coma.”
Najera, an award-winning writer, actor, and director, had only been out of the intensive care unit for six days when he made that speech. His face still bruised and scarred from literally cracking his skull after a nasty faint spell and fall, which was brought on by a bad case of pneumonia. He was practically bleeding to death before found by his wife Susie. Najera was taken to the emergency room where doctors prepared his wife for the worst. But Rick pulled through. Opening his eyes after several scary days to find actor Jacob Vargas standing over him, praying.
“I’ve been shot!” Rick joked as he came to.
“At least he didn’t lose his sense of humor,” Vargas said.
Fortunately, Najera not only kept his funny bone intact, but he awoke from near death with a heftier sense of purpose. He felt few had better perspectives on the obstacles Latinos face in mainstream America. Because in the microcosm for society that our entertainment industry serves as, Najera has seen first-hand the closed doors and narrow-minded presumptions that stand in the way of his community’s conclusive assimilation into American culture. He believed he had to speak out about this no matter how injured he was.
“If I could walk, I was going to speak,” Rick says.
Rick was able to walk, and talk, but other things were not quite right, physically, mentally, or emotionally. It was those other things that served as a motivation to author a book as personal to him as it is universal to others. An inside look at the American Latino experience told through the lens of Najera’s life and times.
“When I came out of the coma, I was in an incubator. I looked like a broken man, with no future. It was like a brake on my life. So I thought about the past a lot. For the first time I really reassessed my life,” he says. “When you come so close to death you tend to start examining things on a metaphysical level. And when I did that, I realized what a wonderful people and culture I belong to. And with Travis Smiley urging me, that’s when I knew I had to write this book.”
Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood, is out in bookstores and available on Amazon. Published by Smiley Books, the release date was September 16th, Mexican Independence Day.
“I use the term almost white because it’s the perception of Latinos, we’re not black we’re not white, we’re almost white. We’ve become this nebulous culture even though we’re very defined by the lack of our presence in the media. I think it’s changing, but it’s only going change when we become in control of our images and our stories,” Najera explains. “I really want people to set the record straight on Latinos. But this still being a human story, because it really is about me overcoming sickness and overcoming a lot of difficulties in Hollywood just simply to make a living. I think everyone can relate to that,”
Najera is known for his stints as a comedy writer on shows like In Living Color and Mad TV, his Showtime special Diary of a Dad Man, the ALMA Award-winning screenplay for the film Nothing Like the Holidays, and the Broadway run of his groundbreaking sketch comedy institution Latinologues, which over the past 20 years has featured a who’s who line-up of Latino performers. But in Almost White, his more thoughtful side takes precedence, though rest assured the humor is there.
An excerpt form the book reads:
Every Latino has a border still inside them. That’s what we must cross before we feel we truly belong. I was born in a border city and had another border on display inside of me. I was a Mexican hyphen American, and, to me, a hyphen is a border. It’s a separation. A fence. A line in the sand. It’s a permanent “Do Not Enter” sign in front of a country.” – Rick Najera, Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood
“The book is both comical and profound. I think people were surprised to see that I can be deep,” Najera says. “But comedians are some of the deepest people you’ll meet. It’s our job to take something negative and spin it into something funny. Something you can laugh at.”
Najera is one of those guys who has done more for the Hollywood careers of rising Latino entertainers than anyone has ever done for him. As the director behind the prestigious CBS Annual Diversity Showcase, Najera has mentored close to a hundred minority actors and comedians, many of them working on TV and film, and at least three so far having made it on Saturday Night Live. You can always leave it to Najera to listen to young performers, advise up and coming writers, and never let anyone within earshot count Latinos out of anything.
That mentorship, and his typically jovial, supportive attitude is one of the reasons so many of those young actors, writers, and performers led a an avalanche of well wishes and support when he was down. And many showed up to cheer him on when he made his first performance post-coma (aside from the World Bank speech) at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.
Fellow writer-producer and one of Najera’s many protégés Rafael Augustin said it best, “Rick Najera is not the richest or most famous man in Hollywood. But he is one of the most loved.”
Najera’s Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood ($16.95, ISBN: 978-1-4019-4312-7), was released by SmileyBooks in stores nationwide on September 16, 2013 and is available now in Paperback or Kindle versions.